Ups and downs for Harford schools [Editorial]

As a result of not securing the funding increase it had sought, the Harford County public school system appears to be taking actions aimed at evoking a response from parents and the public at large.

Instead, the school system's leadership – which is in transition thus complicating things – should take the time to review its situation and consider making a few reorganizational changes to save money.

A detailed analysis of what the school system does and how many people it takes to get that work done is especially vital, but not because the system received only a modest $1.9 million budget increase from Harford County government rather than the requested $22 million increase. Such an analysis should be undertaken because enrollment in Harford County Public Schools has been slowly declining for years, and that decline in enrollment is expected to continue.

As it stands, the school system has been making a few high-profile changes that, in aggregate, appear to be aimed at irritating parents into taking action to demand more education funding from the state and county governments. It remains to be seen if public outrage is warranted, but the story told by the numbers indicates any outrage should be directed at the school system rather than the county and state governments responsible for funding the school system.

For the year that began July 1, the school system has a budget totaling $424.7 million, which is, for practical purposes, flat compared to the previous year. The school system had sought roughly $20 million more than that total, but the request was denied.

The denial was perfectly reasonable. The school system had seen budget increases over the previous several years that outstripped the pace of inflation, even as enrollment has fallen at a relatively slow pace since 2004. Compared to the previous year, enrollment was down by 354 students in the academic year that ended in June. It's a fraction of a percent in a system serving more than 37,000 students, but it's a rate of decrease that, while small, has been steady.

Furthermore, school system projections indicate the trend will continue.

It stands to reason that at some point, the school system should be pondering ways to re-tool to teach fewer students, and do it in a way that costs less money.

Instead the system has made three successive high profile announcements about cuts and policy changes. The first was that 114 positions would have to be cut and in the immediate aftermath several teachers were put on notice that they wouldn't be called back next year. Then, a short time later, the school system realized it would be losing some teachers to retirement, family moves and other issues, and many of those teachers were called back. What was portrayed as an emergency, in other words, turned out to be a false alarm.

This was followed in short order by an announcement that the school system would start charging fees for students who participate in after school activities ranging from theater and band to football and golf. This, no doubt, got the attention of a lot of parents, and will probably get more attention this fall as fees are actually requested and collected.

Then last week the school system announced it would be dramatically altering school bus service, consolidating stops, eliminating bus service to some neighborhoods, obliging students to walk and requiring parents to provide a measure of transportation for students enrolled in magnet programs. According to the school system, the expected total savings from the transportation changes is $890,000.

All these high-profile changes have been made with the notation that the school system's full budget request wasn't granted, but with no mention of the reality that previous budget increases have been funded even as enrollment has been declining.

A key bit of information that's worth pondering with all this is a comment made by one board of education member a few weeks back when it became clear the extra $20 million wouldn't be forthcoming. It was suggested that a few high-salaried non-teaching positions be eliminated to put a dent in the projected shortfall.

That suggestion was essentially brushed aside. Meanwhile, other information has since been revealed by the school system that seems to suggest that non-teaching positions will be more carefully scrutinized.

Among positions that have ended up being eliminated from the school system's mid level pantheon is a post previously occupied by Barbara Canavan, who these days is the acting superintendent. She had been executive director of middle school performance, but that job has been merged with that of executive director of high school performance.

Curiously, the two positions – middle school performance head and high school performance head – had been a single job until three years ago. The question raised is why, in a time of declining enrollment, was it necessary to turn a single high level position into two high level positions?

It also becomes worth asking what other positions have come into being in the past few years, and which can be eliminated. When the announcement about the consolidation of the middle and high school performance executive directors jobs came, it was with news that several other non-teaching administrative positions would be eliminated.

(One thing that's worth noting about how staffing changes are made in just about every organization is that the decisions are often suggested, if not made, by administrators who are unlikely to suggest their jobs be cut. For this reason, a good deal of the responsibility of making any meaningful changes is going to fall to the Board of Education.)

To date, the leadership of Harford County Public Schools appears to have been looking at the budget glass and seeing it as half empty. There is, however, another perspective on the situation, namely that the school system could be in a position so long as enrollment continues declining to make some consolidations that save money.

Some could be as simple as phasing out certain administrative positions as people retire or move on. Others could be a good deal more high profile and involve doing things like consolidating schools and mothballing underused facilities, or turning them over to other government agencies.

It is easy to understand why, as an institution, the school system would be reluctant to engage in voluntary, incremental downsizing, after all, for more than half a century, enrollment in the local school system increased somewhere between steadily and unrelenting. The resulting changes were hard for school system managers to keep on top of, so fear of a return to the days of overcrowding is likely a powerful motivator.

Still, the reality of the situation is enrollment increases aren't projected for more several years and once they start, it's likely to take quite some time before the more than 6,000 in excess capacity is filled.

Meanwhile, the school system should focus on making sure the ratio of teachers to students is optimal for learning and give careful scrutiny to every other position on the books.

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